Fact And Fiction On “Smart Growth” & “Urban Sprawl”

Vice President Al Gore and environmental activists argue that suburban development, pejoratively called “urban sprawl,” is destroying the environment. Loss of farmland and open space, they argue, requires a federal “smart growth” program. However, not only is a federal “sprawl” program unwise, but their plans to curb suburban growth will hurt the environment. Consider the claims made by “smart growth advocates,” and the facts.

Claim: Smart growth protects the open spaces we enjoy.

FACT: Smart growth provides incentives to destroy the open spaces we actually use—open spaces in urban areas and personal open space (such as yards). In Portland, which proponents of smart growth hail as a model of smart growth, the amount of parkland per 1,000 residents has declined from 21 acres to 19 acres this decade alone. Smart growth promotes densification, which means that urban open spaces are developed (including parkland), crowding the few parks that remain.

Claim: Suburban development is destroying our beautiful farmland.

FACT: From 1945 to 1992, the amount of cropland remained constant at 24 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In fact, the federal government spends billions of dollars each year paying farmers to idle their land, suggesting there is a surplus of farmland, not a shortage.

Claim: Increased population density is better for the environment.

FACT: While increased population density may reduce development pressures in rural areas, increased urban density correlates with increased traffic congestion and air pollution. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s own data, smog worsens as densities increase.

Claim: Public transit, especially light rail, is fast, efficient, and will attract enough riders to dramatically reduce traffic congestion.

FACT: Mass transit ridership has been falling for decades and shows no sign of reversing, despite substantial government subsidies. From 1990 to 1995, the number of public transport boardings dropped 5.5 percent nationwide. Public transit fails to provide the speed, flexibility, and comfort that today’s commuters demand, so they use their cars instead.

Claim: The American people want federal action on this issue.

FACT: A recent poll conducted by the polling company for CEI found that only 8 percent of registered voters believe that it is a federal responsibility to control sprawl, while 67 percent believe that this issue is the proper concern of state or local government.

Daniel Simmons is an environmental research assistant at CEI and covers the suburban development issue. Daniel is available for interview by calling Emily McGee, director of media relations, at 202-331-1010, ext. 209, or 703-728-0138.

CEI, a non-profit, non-partisan public policy group founded in 1984, is dedicated to the principles of free enterprise and limited government.